A coronavirus vaccine would be a triumph, but the worst human impulses threaten its success

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Polly Toynbee  –  The Guardian

The combination of anti-vaxxers on the march and a government with woeful health messaging could be lethal for Britain

An anti-lockdown protester in Hyde Park, London, in May. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The world has moved a step closer to ending the Covid-19 horror as researchers from Oxford University, among the 200 global teams working on vaccines, published promising results in The Lancet. The UK has already ordered 90m doses, in breath-holding hope.

A vaccine would mark another feat of astonishing human brilliance. But expect the usual human bad behaviour too. Vaccine researchers pledge to make them available to all as cheaply as possible, but we should brace ourselves for nationalists everywhere to fight for their country first, just as Donald Trump plundered other countries’ personal protective equipment and tried to corner the market in remdesivir. Countries agreed a framework from the World Health Organization (WHO) to share all vaccine information, but few expect an orderly queue: calls for solidarity and cooperation risk being swept away by those with the sharpest elbows, deepest pockets and crookedest swindling.

If the first successful vaccine turns out to be British, wait for the demand that every Briton gets it before the rest of the world, despite the fact that to end the pandemic scientists need to get it fastest to the places where the contagion is most rampant. But if the worst-affected nations are first in line this will include Brazil and the US, where presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump bear personal responsibility for their countries’ high infections and death tolls due to their Covid-19 denials and lockdown refusals. Trump will seize the chance to boast he got vaccines early to boost his election campaign. If a British vaccine succeeds, wait for Boris Johnson’s cock-crows boasting of a world-beating triumph as it if were his own invention, hoping to wipe clean memories of his errors and the UK’s shameful death rate. Science must be blind to politics, plead the global vaccinators.

A vaccine will be held up as an emblem of rational human scientific success, but be prepared for an explosion of human unreason. The idiotic and criminal are already surging across the web spreading toxic anti-vaccine messages. A recent poll suggests one in six Britons would refuse a vaccine. Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, accuses Facebook of profiting from websites promoting bogus wellness gurus’ alternatives to vaccines and anti-vax conspiracy theories that Bill Gates created the pandemic deliberately.

In the US the anti-vaxxers are far-right conspiracists, but in the UK the spread of this anti-vax brain failure finds a home among the “wellness” folk peddling naturopathic junk. The Society of Homeopaths is under investigation by the Professional Standards Authority, which regulates health professionals, as a member of its staff posted messages on social media calling vaccines “poison”, claiming homeopathy had a “great track record of success in epidemics” including Spanish and bird flu. Celebrities including Novak Djokovic and Robert F Kennedy Jnr add their names to anti-vaxxing conspiracies.

No surprise that anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield has resurfaced to claim Covid-19 is a hoax and people must fight to the death to refuse vaccination, as he told a Health Freedom event. Covid-19 was “no more deadly than seasonal flu” and its death toll was “greatly exaggerated”, he said. Wakefield was struck off the medical register and disgraced when his research purporting to show the MMR vaccine caused autism, heavily promoted by the Daily Mail, was exposed as fraudulent. His pernicious influence continues: in 2018 Britain lost its WHO “measles elimination” status, bracketing us with Albania, as vaccination rates fell for the fifth successive year, now at 90%, when the WHO requires 95% of under-fives to be covered. Cases of measles and mumps among teenagers rose after parents failed to vaccinate them as babies due to the Wakefield scare.

However, the fall in take-up of vaccines now is more likely to be caused by government negligence than anti-science homeopaths or anti-vax conspiracists. The austerity decade stripped away services that helped to get babies vaccinated – health visitors, school nurses, social workers, community midwives, Sure Start centres and district nurses. GP appointments are in short supply. The help young parents need is depleted or nonexistent: the fall in vaccination rates is just another sign of neglect that has seen infant mortality rise for the first time in my life.

Britain’s Covid-19 experience has shown how bad policies and confused messaging from government can cause a large number of deaths, particularly in vulnerable groups. If a new vaccine works, if large batches are manufactured fast, will this government be capable of delivering vaccinations to everyone, after austerity has destroyed so much of the basic community health infrastructure?

Herd immunity requires a high vaccination rate, but if one in six is refusing, it will take a herculean effort in persuasion to shift those deep fears. Prof Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says: “Trust is key. But the UK has not done well and that will be a problem.” Political polarisation is a danger: leavers tend to dismiss the danger presented by the virus, remainers are more obediently mask-wearing and cautious. “Compulsion can backfire. Reasoning with people is all there is,” says McKee.

Mixed, muddled, contradictory advice has spread confusion and an increasingly petulant resistance. Senior doctors are pleading with the public to keep to the social distancing rules for fear the NHS will be overwhelmed this winter.

Rightwingers, ever eager to make a culture war out of anything, are losing their absurd mask wars: polling shows that seven out of 10 support mandatory mask-wearing in English shops, with only 13% opposed. The public is more cautious than Johnson: they know it’s not over, lifting lockdown has not led to a spike in cases, but local and national lockdowns remain a risk.

On Monday the prime minister was at a school, oddly emphasising that: “We’ve got to continue with our current approach, maintaining social distancing measures … washing hands … wearing face masks in confined spaces like on public transport or in shops. And then we will continue to drive the virus down by our own collective action.Yet only last week his “return to normality” message urged everyone back to stuffy offices on crowded public transport, bribing them with a tenner to cram into town centre restaurants and cafes.

Where will absolute trust come from when so much has been blown away by Johnson, and by the unapologetic Barnard Castle jaunt by his adviser Dominic Cummings? Failure in care homes and a track and trace system unfit for purpose will make it hard for any government figure to convince all doubters to follow best scientific advice.

The official scientists are now distancing themselves from the politicians moving dangerously fast towards “back to normal”. But will they be trusted enough after standing so long at their lecterns while Johnson made wrong and late decisions? If not, then who? Archbishops? The Queen? Internet influencers? Captain Tom? In persuading people to vaccinate, the most powerful influencers will be local: nurses and doctors, the only people who emerge from this national disaster still carrying public respect.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

 

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